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211: Checking In with Chris Whitley and Ellipsys Commercial Technology Group

Written by Rob Stott

April 9, 2024

It’s been about a year since Chris Whitley joined the CI team at Nationwide Marketing Group to help launch our commercial integrator network. A year in, we sat down with Chris to talk about the launch and growth of Ellipsys Commercial Technology Group and what’s ahead for his expanding network.

Here’s the link to the previous podcast with Chris that’s mentioned during this episode.


 

Rob Stott: All right, we are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and I am thrilled, honored, and probably obliged I think this show to be sitting down with Mr. Chris Whitley, our executive director of the Ellipsys Commercial Technology Group. Am I? I’m not being coerced necessarily, but this setup, this is your doing, man.

Chris Whitley: Thanks Rob. Yeah, actually it’s a-

Rob Stott: Yeah, give the shout out where it’s due.

Chris Whitley: …good friend Rick Renner at Sure donated this equipment for us. It’s great setup. And yeah, we sound great, don’t we?

Rob Stott: We do. Thank you, Chris.

Chris Whitley: Thanks Rick too.

Rob Stott: Rick. Thank you Chris and Rick. Well, dive into it. So I know we’ve got a lot to dive into on the commercial side. We’re about a year into your efforts here at Nationwide and with Ellipsys. And for those that haven’t seen, we’ll throw a link in the description to our first interview not too long after you started, I think.

Chris Whitley: Yeah, it was pretty close.

Rob Stott: Yeah, right?

Chris Whitley: Yeah, it was a couple months I think.

Rob Stott: So if they’re too lazy to go watch the video, we’ll do it anyway. What’s that elevator pitch on Ellipsys for those not familiar?

Chris Whitley: Yeah, sure. So it is kind of three major principles to the group. And I’ll talk about how we do it. There’s people, process, and partnerships. So the first thing is we connect people, which are our members. We connect them to the industry, to industry veterans and thought leaders so that they can learn. But most importantly, we connect them to other members like themselves that have core business just like them, where they can share best practices and learn from their peers. We all sit across from tables sometimes and share best ideas with each other, but it’s usually not a business that does the exact same work we do.

So there’s real power in learning from somebody else that’s gone through the same pain points as you in the same business. So we connect people. The process is really the magic in what we do. We bring our members together with our vendor partners at meetings where we’ll have keynote speakers giving us some great content, but then we’ll actually break out and do workout set working sessions where they’ll work on the business and then come back and do report outs so that not only the people in the breakout session can learn, but the greater good of the group can learn too.

So it’s kind of a greater good of the group model, so to speak. And then the partnerships, that’s like, that’s the icing on the cake, so to speak. We bring vendor partners to our members, which gives them additional discounts from invoice, sometimes rebates on the back end, but basically improves their margin, improves their bottom line. And then for our vendors, we concentrate volumes for them and take market share from their competitors. But you combine all that together though, and it’s that long-lasting meaningful relationships that all that creates that’s really the magic of the group. That creates the speed of transactions, you call a vendor, get elevated treatment because it’s not just you calling, you’re calling and it’s all the other Ellipsys members that are calling at the same time too. So it’s really kind of that whole ecosystem that’s pulled together.

Rob Stott: And from the inside, this is what they don’t get to see. From the inside, it’s been impressive to watch just the amount of work and effort put into building that process and building those systems and building the partnerships. So that’s me passing you some flowers because it’s been awesome to watch over the past year and I know a lot of work has gone into it. And so talk about that this past year. I said it, a lot of work. You’ve been doing a lot to get this group off the ground and get things moving. So where do we sit a year in? How are things progressing? What’s kind of an update on what’s going on with Ellipsys right now today?

Chris Whitley: Sure. So they’re progressing nicely. Be candid, a little bit slower than we would like, but I think that’s because we’re putting the right foundation in place. When I came on board, I came on board because of the powerful, the nature of Nationwide Marketing Group and the power and resources behind that. But I also have to fit into that ecosystem somewhere. And while the majority of that ecosystem is residential, retail, outside of really true commercial work, it does fit with the resimercial audiovisual integrators. So we’re growing a little bit slower, but currently we have 12 members and 12 vendor partners as well. But those vendor partners represent 18 brands. So we’re growing slowly but surely, but we’re growing the right way. We’ve got the right foundations. We know what our swim lane is, really. What our niche and the members that we serve in the community. So I think we’re all pleased with the growth and where we’re at today.

Rob Stott: No, it’s awesome, man. And I think there’s something to be said about too fast too, so I don’t want you to… You have your mind on where you want to be, and I think that’s the hunger in you too, which is awesome to see. So that growth, I’m glad you brought up numbers too, because we’ve been talking over the past year about the drive to a thousand, which across the whole CI group. So that’s our Oasys, Ellipsys, Ozion dealers coming together to achieve that thousand, the drive to a thousand. Which for you to accomplish your part of that, what is that big focus for you this year as you think about that initiative?

Chris Whitley: Sure. So I guess first of all, lucky I’m only 10% of the thousand.

Rob Stott: Which means you’re 12% all the way there.

Chris Whitley: This year, two major focus. Obviously we want to continue to… Or three, really. We want to continue to add vendor partners that make sense, fit the demographics of our membership and the right products. I’m going to pause.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Chris Whitley: Can you repeat the question for me? Then I’ll-

Rob Stott: So your focus for this year, big focus for 2024 as we continue to drive.

Chris Whitley: Big focus, as I mentioned, vendor partners. We also are establishing a partner council with a handful of those vendor partners that’ll help us determine initiatives for the next year. So we want to get that formed before we get too far into this year, because then we’ll be working on initiatives for next year too late. Other big focus is membership additions obviously. We’ve got a target of 50 members that we’re trying to drive through for this year. We didn’t expect a lot of that to happen in the first quarter. So again, we’re at 12. We’re a little under halfway, but we’ve got some work to do, but looking forward to that. And then the other thing is events. We will be putting on our first event in October, and really looking forward to that, because we’re going to bring not only the members and the partners together, it’ll be our first time, but we’ve got some really cool things on.

We’re going to talk about digital signage, which is still, the industry’s struggling a little bit right now. We are not going to sit here and put our head in the sand and say everything’s rosy. Economy is a little challenge, so things are a little tight. So we’re going to try to identify ways for integrators to chase work that is in a vertical that’s growing, which digital signage is, but also work that is recurring in revenue and also work that’s higher margin work. We’ve got some things around that and around AV as a service, and then some great breakout sessions to work on business. Some of that’ll be driven by the dealers. We will ask our integrator members what they want to work on and we’ll put that in the meeting as well.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. You almost jumped ahead of me on, because you started to answer the question I was going to ask. I’m glad your mind’s working that way. The commercial industry, we’re sitting here primetime, got a lot of updates from across retail, CI, Oasys, Hank was able to provide some updates on his channel. What is going on in the commercial space right now? Where you mentioned digital signage, what other areas or focuses are there for commercial integrators today?

Chris Whitley: Sure. It’s a challenge, and I wish I could totally predict where this was, because I probably wouldn’t be doing these podcasts if I could. But I think it’s kind of a mixed bag. I talked to a lot of manufacturers, talked to a lot of integrators. Obviously on the retail, we see what’s happening on the retail residential side. The commercial industry is still just barely coming out, supply chain challenges. So I think it’s hard to figure out what true forecasts are, but let’s be clear about it. Most people are saying first quarter was a little bit down, a little bit of a challenge, but starting to see some activity pick up and we’re optimistic that the economy’s going to have this kind of soft landing and third and fourth quarter will be robust. Whether that happens, I don’t know, but we’ll all hope for lower interest rates. Hint, hint.

Rob Stott: Get to work. On the commercial side, the thing that pops to my mind when I’m thinking about how businesses flow and for residential and Oasys members, clearly it’s the home starts and spending in the home, things like that. I have to imagine Covid and everything, is the industry still coming out of that? As workers left the office, did that have a big impact or what role did that play in all of this for the commercial industry?

Chris Whitley: It’s interesting you mention that. One of the things that was great about Covid for me or from my perspective is that everybody adopted our technology that we install.

Rob Stott: During that time.

Chris Whitley: Yeah, everybody. I mean, my daughter came to me after me doing this for 18 years in the industry before and said, “Hey, you know what Zoom is?”

Rob Stott: Yeah, I do actually.

Chris Whitley: So it’s fully adopted and the factors of people going away and being remote and hybrid workplace, they’re all factors that are important. I don’t think we truly know the impact. Some places are forcing people to come back to work, some places aren’t. But what is true is you have a hybrid workforce and you’re going to have remote participants in meeting that need to have equity in the meeting if you want true collaboration. So we’re going to continue to see that. Is it going to be with reduced facility footprints? I think it’s hit or miss.

There’s this one constituency of companies that are like, “We want to support remote workers.” And then there’s others like, “You’re coming back into the office.” So I think we kind of don’t, and we’re going to have to wait and see, but the full adoption of the technology, that’s positive. Because I think we used to, it was almost a discretionary spend. It was like, yeah, I think we should do that. And now I don’t know how much. Now it’s we need to do this. What’s the right way for us to do this? Is it a simple huddle room, one UCC system? Do we need a big, broad, multi-purpose room that advertises everybody? Whatever it is, but the hybrid workforce and remote workforce, here to stay at some level.

Rob Stott: Makes sense. Well, and I know too in the commercial industry, that part of it, the office space is just one section of commercial integration. So you get restaurants and whatnot, obviously. Similar take for restaurants? If people weren’t able to go, were those businesses able to focus on improving their locations during that time?

Chris Whitley: That’s interesting. There’s certainly a lot of things that are happening. Touchless ordering and some other things.

Rob Stott: Going out to restaurants today, I’m using my phone to pay more and not handing cards to a server. You mentioned that sort of stuff, or even menus. Like ordering on video boards.

Chris Whitley: You’re starting to see menus that are just in glass, translucent glass and stuff.

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Chris Whitley: So yeah, the technology is certainly impacting those areas. And you mentioned revenue areas. Think about kiosks. You see them everywhere. Not traditionally something commercial AV has done. So all of our technology is starting to now kind of flip right out into other avenues.

Rob Stott: Yeah, that’s unique.

Chris Whitley: So challenge is now. Economies, but I think the future just as bright as can be.

Rob Stott: For sure. And I want to ask too, because we are here with Oasys and Hank and those members, and obviously the CEDIA a big part of that industry. Doing a lot of work too, getting CIX and CEDIA together.

Chris Whitley: Let me jump in. Don’t forget to mention PrimeTime.

Rob Stott: Oh, absolutely.

Chris Whitley: I joined because of the resources.

Rob Stott: The show.

Chris Whitley: This show is what, 375,000 square feet? This is a big show. A lot of people, I think we have what, 3,000 attendees here?

Rob Stott: Yeah. It’s incredible. Some good numbers walking around.

Chris Whitley: So all that, I just wanted to…

Rob Stott: Hey, we appreciate you pointing that out.

Chris Whitley: Pitch for the mothership.

Rob Stott: Throwing flowers right back. I see how it works. No, but I mentioned CEDIA. Obviously they got a report that comes out every couple of years, state of the industry type stuff. They obviously, Covid gave the dealer, the custom integrator, the opportunity to refocus and revamp their businesses. We had already seen sort of the rise of that term resimercial in that space. So what is the commercial take on that? Do they go the other way too? What’s sort of the mindset from a commercial integrator? Do they look at resimercial? Where do they stand in that space or in that conversation?

Chris Whitley: There are some, but generally most my experience, so there’s going to be somebody that has a different one, but most commercial integrators will generally find somebody that they trust to hand over those types of installs. Somebody’s doing something at the college, the president of the college wants them to go in, do their house. Some commercial integrators will do it, but many will find somebody.

Rob Stott: Like an Oasys.

Chris Whitley: Like an Oasys member or an Ozion member or somebody that has the residential experience and hand that off. A little bit different for the resimercial guys. So some commercial guys get a little upset.

Rob Stott: Little hesitant. Yeah, for sure, I can see that.

Chris Whitley: Coming into my space. But resimercial guys were forced to when home starts stopped and everything, but what I also noticed is the resimercial market does not cross over into all the verticals within commercial space. Generally happens to be a handful of verticals. House of Worship is one, not the mega. You usually have large commercial guys doing the mega churches, but the smaller, more local regional churches, those guys. Restaurants and bars like you mentioned, which is a tie for digital signage. Most people are just doing the install, not focusing on a digital signage piece. Come to one of our meetings, you’ll learn more about that. And then amenity spaces, hospitality, which that’s an interesting market in and of itself. And some commercial integrators.

Rob Stott: It’s almost like the home, right? Because the rooms that are like bedrooms essentially.

Chris Whitley: Yeah, and it’s smart. Usually it’s smart TVs, smart technology. So you see a lot of growth of integrators that do both in those spaces, but not if you’re in commercial or you migrate towards that. I know a few integrators that started all residential and are now pure commercial, so they seem to migrate that way versus the other way.

Rob Stott: Gotcha, opposed the other way. It’s kind of that light commercial term. That’s what you hear about?

Chris Whitley: It’s probably a better term than resimercial, but for some reason the industry has adopted resimercial.

Rob Stott: It’s stuck. It got so buzzwordy that it just…

Chris Whitley: And we’re contributing to it.

Rob Stott: I know, as we talk about it. Light commercial. We’re going to talk into our phones until Facebook realizes that we’re saying light commercial, and then that’s just going to take over.

Chris Whitley: That works.

Rob Stott: Well, this was awesome to be able to catch up with you and to get the microphones, to be quite honest.

Chris Whitley: I hope Rick’s watching this so he can see how happy he made you.

Rob Stott: I know. That made my life. No, this podcaster is a very happy individual. And no, in all honesty, it’s been great to watch the growth of the group and everything you’re doing and hopefully play a small part in that too. So I look forward to 24 with you and seeing the growth in Ellipsys and members and vendors added. So I know we’re excited to have you here and to continue to watch Ellipsys evolve.

Chris Whitley: I appreciate you having me on. Obviously, I’m a little less nervous the second time around.

Rob Stott: Yeah, wait until we get your third.

Chris Whitley: Awesome.

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